Fiction / Rebecca Gonshak
:: Hypnosis ::
First we eat the candies, then I ask Mark to hypnotize me. Making it up on the spot, he tells me to sit facing him and focus on his finger, which he waves slowly back and forth. I’m immediately aroused and want to show him how well I can focus, how obedient I can be. He tells me to close my eyes and imagine the time I was most afraid.
So I go to the memory I always go to. I’m eight, maybe nine, crouched on the floor of my parents’ basement. Did I really crouch? The carpet was horrible: red and black astroturf-like fibers. We threw dirty laundry down there but hardly ever washed it; it made soft, musty piles I jumped into from the stairs.
I’m crouching, trying to become a pile of laundry, while upstairs my parents and sister stomp and scream. My sister, I imagine, is running at my parents like a bull, or a stampede. She is nonverbal and in pain; we’ll never know if the pain was from headaches or despair. She died too young.
That night she might have bitten my parents or pinched or choked them. I was afraid she might kill them, then come downstairs and kill me, but she was just a girl, thirteen or fourteen. In the memory I am prostrate, the child’s pose in yoga, my fists clutching the plastic carpet. Was I praying? I was probably praying.
Mark asks, “How scary is it, on a scale of one to ten?”
I say seven.
“Now remember a time when you felt completely safe. Go to that place.”
My safe place is a couch, my ex-boyfriend Jack’s. We’re cuddling and binge-watching the first season of Stranger Things, which might seem too mundane for perfect contentment, but that’s the kind of animal we are. Humans, I mean. My friend realized he was in love with his girlfriend while they were on a couch watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. TV plus touch is a narcotic, like you could do this forever, keep watching episodes until you die in each other’s arms. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been except high. Jack was older and ex-military and would take charge without realizing it. I felt safe with him. Safe to push back against his pushiness. Pushing back made me feel like a real person.
Meanwhile Mark is still hypnotizing me. “Go back to the scary place, but take the feeling of the safe place with you. Take whoever is with you in the safe place down to the scary place.” Jack and I go down to the basement and crouch with the little girl. We comfort her like we’re the parents. There’s still violence happening above us, people in pain, but we can hardly hear it. “Blanket yourself in love” is what the online yoga teacher I follow always says. Jack and the child and I are under the love blanket. It feels abstract and tingly.
“How scary is the scary place now?” Mark asks.
He tells me to go back to the safe place and imagine it’s now a hot spring.
“Feel the hot water embrace you. You see thousands of stars in the black sky.”
I imagine the heat and the stars, adding a few fireflies and a ring of trees. My mouth spreads in an expression of delight, and I hope Mark is impressed by how good I am at imagining things. Or that he’ll think his words really have that power, to drop me into a hot spring under thousands of stars.
My face has always been embarrassingly expressive, like a cartoon. Sometimes the expressions are affected, sometimes they’re genuine. Sometimes a little of both. This time it’s both. I want him to look at my closed eyes and contented grin and think I’m as pliable as hot metal, as open as a river. I’m not actually hypnotizable, probably. There was a hypnotist at my senior class graduation party who picked me as a volunteer, and I went along with what he said but didn’t really lose control.
He tells me to go back to the scary place, except now the scary place has a hot spring and stars. Jack is still there, and we’re all warm and comfortable and safe. The little girl is still huddled on her knees in prayer. She hasn’t acknowledged me or Jack. She just keeps huddling, hiding. Now she’s sinking into the red carpet, starting to dissolve. Jack and I try to hold her up, each taking an arm, but she melts in our hands, becoming part of the hot water. Jack and I start to fuck in the hot spring. I straddle him, and the steam wraps around us. The pipes rattle like someone above us is flushing a toilet. I hear my sister grappling with one of my parents. She’s saying over and over her one word: joo-beesh. A social worker was trying to teach her “Please,” and she used it in every context, including violence.
“How scary is the scary place now?”
“Four,” I say. Is the fear really reducing, or am I just reducing the number because I’m so obedient? Because I’m thrilled that someone’s telling me what to do?
“Now go back to the safe place. Rest in the safe place. You are safe. You are loved. When I snap my fingers, you will wake up.”
Mark snaps his fingers. I open my eyes and kiss him. I’m still just beginning to know him.
From the writer
:: Account ::
This piece began as an assignment for a surrealist poetry class, to write a poem in a state of hypnosis. Since I was pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction, I mostly wrote lyric essays in the class and tried (unsuccessfully) to pass them off as prose poetry.
For the assignment, I bought pot candy and shared it with a guy I was dating. I asked him to hypnotize me, and later, while I was high, did some automatic writing, which was really just silly images and phrases. Later, not high, I incorporated these phrases into an essay describing the experience of being “hypnotized.” I included that version in my thesis as a lyric essay, but I knew it wasn’t yet finished.
A year later, I went back to the piece, cut out the automatic writing portions, which were quite obnoxious, and realized it worked better as a short short story than a lyric essay. The distance allowed me to describe the memories more directly and honestly. Transforming it into fiction allowed me to distort reality at the end when the “safe place” and the “scary place” blend together in my narrator’s mind.
Some writers who got me interested in lyric essays and hybrid prose/poetry are Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson, especially “The Glass Essay.” Carmen Maria Machado’s short chapters in In the Dream House, with their surreal imagery and the fuzziness between memory and imagination, gave me a model for imagining a new form for this piece.
Rebecca Gonshak is currently a laid-off bookseller living in Spokane, WA. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Eastern Washington University. Her work has been published in Alien Magazine and The Swamp.